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Jaron Lanier receives the 2014 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade

The American computer scientist, musician and writer Jaron Lanier was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade today. The ceremony took place in the Church of St. Paul in Frankfurt before roughly 1,000 invited guests, including Monika Grütters, German State Minister of Culture. The speech honoring this year's recipient was given by Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament.

Jaron Lanier
© Lena Lanier

In his acceptance speech, Jaron Lanier spoke in favor of a synthesis of the best of pre-digital and digital systems. He also pleaded for a new humanism: "The new humanism is a belief in people, as before, but specifically in the form of a rejection of artificial intelligence. This doesn't mean rejecting any particular algorithm or robotic mechanism. Every single purported artificially intelligent algorithm can be equally well-understood as a non-autonomous function that people can use as a tool. This rejection is not based on the irrelevant argument usually put forward about what computers can do or not do, but instead on how people are always needed to perceive the computer in order for it to be real. Without people, computers are just space heaters making patterns," noted Lanier.  

The recipient of this year's Peace Prize believes in human distinctiveness: "If we just admitted that people are still needed in order for big data to exist, and if we were willing to lessen our fantasies of artificial intelligence, then we might enjoy a new economic pattern in which the bell curve would begin to appear in digital economic outcomes, instead of winner-take-all results. That might result in sustainable societies that don’t fall prey to austerity, no matter how good or seemingly 'automated' technology gets," said Lanuer. We have the choice, Lanier argued further: "But the key point, the essential position from which we must not compromise, is to recognize that there is a space of alternatives. The pattern we see today is not the only possible pattern, and is not inevitable." 

"It's good that Jaron Lanier is the recipient of today's prize," said Martin Schulz in his speech honoring Lanier. According to Schulz, Lanier received the prize "as a representative of all those who are part of the seminal debate on our digital future. [...] Because this process of negotiation—the question as to which digital vision will dominate the 21st century—is also a question of peace. It concerns us all. It will determine our future freedom, justice and whether we will live in a world of solidarity, pluralism and creativity." According to Schulz, there is no clear separation between analogue and digital worlds: "Almost all questions on the subject of internet politics concern the same socio-political questions that we know from the days of the analogue world. Which is why not just internet politicians and activists need to stand up, but also those who are not digital natives; they, too, have a right to participate in the discussion. Because if we were to leave all these questions to the tech experts, the programmers and the nerds, we’d end up living in a self-referential system ruled by engineers and mathematicians; a government of experts in the Platonic sense. But that wouldn’t be a democracy."  

"At the heart of the debate sparked by Jaron Lanier some years ago lies the question as to whether humanity will be able to uphold the individuality—and thus the personal freedom—of each single person, without foregoing the advantages of the digital world, or whether we will enter into an ever-increasing dependency on machines, making man himself into an algorithm," argued Heinrich Riethmüller, Chairman of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association. "Jaron Lanier does not content himself with the role of analyst and admonisher; rather he develops strategies that may enable us to surmount the danger of becoming altogether dependent on technology and machines." Riethmüller noted that it is this struggle in favor of a society in the service of humanity that connects Lanier with his fellow Peace Prize recipients.